Times Art Critic

The J. Paul Getty Museum broke the world auction record for a painting Thursday evening in London, paying about $10.5 million for “The Adoration of the Magi” by Italian Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna.

The picture was sold at Christie’s in a session lasting less than half an hour. The Getty was represented by Tim Bathurst, a director of Artemis Fine Arts, who landed the treasure in about three minutes. Auctioneer Patrick Lindsay started the bidding at $3 million, and the Getty quickly outran its competition, a representative of New York’s Wildenstein gallery bidding for an unnamed client.

Commenting after the sale, Getty Museum Director John Walsh said: “We are naturally overjoyed to have acquired the picture. For such a small and specialized institution as the Getty, the acquisition has a particular importance. It will be a marvelous addition to our collection of Italian paintings of the Renaissance period.”


Mantegna paintings are rare, and very few are left in private hands. “The Adoration” was sold by the Marquess of Northampton, Spencer D. D. Compton, who attended the sale. Lord Northampton issued no statement, but according to a Christie’s spokesperson, he was “pleased” with the outcome. He is said to have decided to part with the picture to raise funds for the upkeep of two large family estates.

Mantegna (1431-1506) was a first-generation pioneer artist of the North Italian Renaissance. His breakthrough work in volumetric delineation, foreshortening and the use of classical motifs influenced subsequent masters from Giovanni Bellini to Albrecht Duerer and Leonardo da Vinci. Mantegna worked mainly as court painter to the ruling Gonzaga family, where he produced his best-known works including frescoes for the Camera degli sposi and his trademark “Dead Christ,” now in Milan. Another version of the “Adoration” hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The Getty version is a late work painted around 1495 to 1505, measures just over 21 by 27 inches and is executed on canvas-backed linen in oil and tempera. The Holy Family and the Magi are closely grouped and cropped about mid-chest. The legendary connoisseur Bernard Berenson saw the picture in 1894 and accepted it “without question” as authentic, saying, “Considered for its quality of line . . . it is admirable, and in feeling it has much of that tender homeliness that characterized Mantegna’s art at a certain time.”

At the Christie’s sale, the picture vastly surpassed the previous record holder. A landscape by British master J.M.W. Turner sold last year for about $8 million. Only one art object has ever sold for more--”The Gospels of Henry Lion,” which brought $11.9 million at Sotheby’s.

Aside from the spectacular Getty buy, Thursday’s sale was described as “quiet.” It was beamed to Christie’s New York salesroom by television satellite, but there was virtually no bidding from Manhattan. The whole sale fetched a total of just more than $13 million for eight Old Master paintings. (An original roster of 16 was whittled down when seven paintings were withdrawn before the sale. One picture failed to sell.)

According to a Getty spokesperson, the painting will come here after a pro forma waiting period of three months required by British law before an export license is issued. Britons are sensitive about the slow drain on masterworks from private collections being sold off by titled Englishmen strapped by a dwindling economy and high taxes.


If funds can be raised during the waiting period, the British government has the right to buy the painting back. Recently the Getty lost a Duccio when a public subscription raised about $2 million to retain the late Medieval work. The high price of the Mantegna makes it unlikely that the Getty will lose it.